Three ways the Church helps us discern

06H Sr Margaret JosephBelonging to the Church and being active in the Church is one of the best ways to live and grow in our faith, and can be invaluable in helping us discern God’s call. Our faith community can be as small as a prayer group, as large as a parish, or a midsize group that centers around a form of ministry or nurturing our faith and spirituality in every day life. Virtual faith communities can also support us spiritually and help us to grow, although in more limited ways. We may belong to more than one faith community.

Faith communities that really nurture us can be difficult to find, and they take many shapes. If you do not have a faith community—for example, you go to Sunday Mass but are not more involved in living and sharing your faith in your parish or in other ways—I encourage you to actively seek one. Your own parish is a good place to start. (If you don’t feel that your parish is nurturing your faith deeply enough, there are many other ways to connect with the Church.)

Why is belonging to a faith community so important to our discernment?

1. Because we need to be actively involved in building the Church in order to fully live our faith. Jesus doesn’t call us as isolated individuals, but calls us into community, to serve one another and to live in communion with each other. How can we do that if we aren’t actively involved? An essential part of our baptismal call is to evangelize, to witness, and share our faith with others. And the first place that we can do that is within the Church.

We cannot nurture and grow in our faith alone; we need others to help us, to inspire us, to motivate us, to call us to greater self-giving. Finding a dynamic faith community where we are nurtured spiritually can be challenging, but it’s worth the search. If we cannot find a vibrant parish nearby, we can start looking for other kinds of Catholic faith communities. Retreats, lay movements, or connecting with religious communities of priests, brothers, or sisters, are three ways we can find people who are committed to growing in holiness in ways that we can identify with and share. In a dynamic faith community where we truly share the height and depths of our Faith, we can more easily hear and respond to God’s invitations to us—whether they are to a particular ministry or initiative, or a deeper relationship with Christ. Especially if we are discerning our vocation or ministry, Jesus will call us and affirm our call in and through the Church.

2. We often receive Christ’s call in and through his Church: through receiving the Word of God, through our sacramental life, through the Eucharist, in the homilies, in the calls of our pastors, in the service that we give, in the holy examples of the saints and perhaps in the inspiring lives of someone we know. For those discerning their vocations, the Church has the best understanding of how to receive, respond to, and live the call to marriage, single, priestly and religious life.

3. Usually it is in the Church that we can best learn how to serve with the mind and heart of Christ. Despite the reality that the Church is Christ’s Body, we will find many people in the Church whose humanity and sinfulness irritate, disturb, and perhaps even appall us. But we know that Christ died to redeem us and sanctify us, and that the Church’s holiness comes from Christ. If we look attentively, we will also find people in the Church who are truly holy: who are receptive to the Word of God in the Scripture and in the Eucharist, and who humbly serve—often without being acknowledged. We are called to build up the Church—sometimes the irritating or wounded part of the Church that would normally turn us away—with our faith and service. In turn, certain members of our faith community will invite and/or challenge us to serve. And they will also affirm us in our service.

As Catholic Christians, we are called to listen to the invitations the Church makes–because Christ speaks through his Church. Our last few popes have wisely and unapologetically called the Church to take specific actions. Coming from pastors who most clearly represent Christ on earth, these are calls from God. Today, Pope Francis sometimes startles us with the vividness of his invitations of how we are to called to love the world as Christ did. His wise and pastoral invitations to holiness and service are not just for the bishops and clergy, but for all of us Catholic Christians to bring to prayer and discernment.

Can God Speak to Us Through Others?

06G Pixabay choice 3Can God speak to us through others? Yes! Actually, an important part of listening to God is recognizing that sometimes God will speak or invite us through other people. As human beings, we are called to share life together in our family. But we also have other communities that we are part of: our circle of friends, school, work, and other groups of people we hang out with. Our parish as our faith-community is especially important.

We really do not know ourselves well nor mature fully until we experience ourselves as part of a community.

Others challenge us to give fully of ourselves. Without being stretched by others’ needs and demands, we cannot know our true strengths. And we do not truly know our weaknesses until we rub elbows with the people in our lives who push us to our limits and sometimes beyond. Our ego—with our false sense of ourselves—often blinds us to our greatest gifts and our greatest weaknesses. But others can see us clearly, without the blind spots.

I can think of a time when I fooled myself into thinking I was a pretty patient person…but then I found myself in a very irritating situation—and I suddenly discovered that I was not patient at all, it’s just that I hadn’t encountered a situation where my patience had really been tested. Living and working closely with others is one of the best ways to help us to get to know ourselves.

God often helps us to see and understand ourselves and our situation better by speaking through others—friends, co-workers, enemies, bosses, and acquaintances. Sometimes just a random comment from someone who doesn’t like us very much can help us to understand something about ourselves: how we come across, something we are particularly good or bad at, etc. If we are open, sometimes we will discover that God is speaking to us or inviting us through our conversation with someone.

When we are discerning, it can be really helpful to sort things out with someone we trust: a family member, friend, a mentor, or someone in our faith community.

To Share or Not To Share? Finding Support for Our Discernment

04FCompressedAs we grow in the spiritual life, it’s important to find a community of people who can support us on our journey towards holiness. St. Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ is relevant here—we make our journey towards heaven together. Discernment—coming to know God’s will for us—is a part of our journey, and it’s not easy. Friends or companions who also view life through eyes of faith, and who can share their discernment with us, can be invaluable.

That doesn’t mean we cut off our relationships with everyone else, but it does mean that we develop ways to support our discernment, which includes finding people who share our perspective of faith.

The  more important our discernment is to our life, the more thought we should give to whom we share it with and when. In early stages, we may wish to keep our discernment mostly to ourselves, sharing it only with a spiritual director or other trusted mentor, and perhaps a really close friend. Knowing that an important part of discernment is to become free—free of the pressures that could prevent us from hearing or following God’s call—should shape when and how we decide to share our discernment. Early on, everything feels very tentative. Because we haven’t “worked through” even our own desires and thoughts, we can be more easily influenced by the strong reactions of others. We may even be influenced to prematurely end our discernment.

Sadly, I’ve personally witnessed this when a young person expresses a desire to discern religious life or the priesthood. Parents—sometimes even faithful Catholics—immediately put pressure on their child to give up any idea of following a vocation to religious life or priesthood. In some cases, the parents might clearly see that their child isn’t called to the consecrated or priestly life. But most of the time, the parents are reacting because of their own desires, and this impinges on their child’s freedom. Ideally,  a young person would share their vocational discernment (or any other big discernment) with their parents at an early stage—because of their youth and need for guidance, and because of their parents’ knowledge of them. But sometimes,  to feel truly free, the young person has to discern without their parents’ support, and share their discernment journey only as they receive more clarity, as it nears its conclusion.

The further we go in our discernment, the stronger our desire grows to do God’s will in this particular regard. Even though we do not know how we are called, this time of strength and greater commitment to God’s will is a helpful time to share our discernment with a wider circle. Our friends and family know us well, and they may be able to articulate things about us or our situation that we find helpful to our discernment. Their expressions of support can also be invaluable as we come face-to-face to our own inner resistance.

If a friend or family member truly loves us, they will try to understand what is important to us. They won’t demand that we follow their path, but our own. A friend who truly loves us wants what’s best for us, and gives us the freedom to seek it. This kind of friend can be a tremendous support on our journey of discernment even if they don’t have any faith in God at all.

When we look back at people who have accomplished great things in history, we discover that they were often surrounded by other notable people. For example, great writers often hang out with other great writers. (Look at the Inklings.) Great artists know other great artists. And the more I’ve researched the lives of the saints, I’ve discovered how often great saints know—or are even good friends with—other great saints.

On our spiritual journey, we don’t want to underestimate the importance of spiritual friendship and spiritual support. We may find it at our parish, in a prayer group or lay movement, on a retreat, in a particular ministry, or in an affiliation with a religious community. Our spiritual director may be able to recommend a group that can nurture us spiritually. We all need spiritual support—not just for this discernment but for your entire spiritual journey.